Nobukazu Takemura approaches Assembler the way any self-respecting, underappreciated Abstract Expressionist painter would have approached a new suite of paintings -- by trying to plop himself squarely in the canon. In Takemura's case, the canon to crack is Contemporary Composition, a vague umbrella term comprising almost anything too weird, too conceptual, or too formal for any other classification. Suffice it to say that Takemura, a hip-hop deejay in the mid-'80s, is striving to reserve a spot for himself in the avant-garde afterworld, a land inhabited by important names -- your John Cages, your Steve Reichs, your Brian Enos. It would be clever, then, to assume the stance of Greenbergian formalist critic, testing Assembler against already canonized avant-garde albums to determine if it cuts the mustard.
But that wouldn't work for a couple reasons. Firstly, Jim O'Rourke noodlings aside, this is one of the more ambitious concept albums that uses a laptop as the primary sound source, and any accepted frame of reference or comparison doesn't really exist yet. Secondly, things fall apart on this record. Assembler is extremely difficult listening, and while some songs sound interesting for two or three minutes, most will have you deriving equal pleasure from banging your head against the wall after four or five.
Takemura has claimed to make an album of hidden melodies and harmonies created from seemingly formless electronic abstraction. "Conical Flask" is a nice start to the experiment. This is Takemura in full Eno-esque ambiance mode. A simple motif is looped endlessly, but subtle changes to the rhythm and length of the repetition give the song a trancelike, half-asleep feel. Then the going gets tough. The liquidy laptop squealing of "USINE" is cool for a few minutes, but soon becomes akin to being dragged through a futuristic hell by a laughing Takemura for an agonizing eight minutes. While some bands -- Half Japanese, the Sun City Girls, John Cage -- made noisy (or noiseless) torture quite charming, Takemura's version is too, well, inhuman. Most of Assembler's songs harbor the same weakness as "USINE." They run too long.
Despite Takemura's claim that these songs consist of veiled harmonies within the layers of noise, their structurelessness is ultimately their undoing. Because Assembler's songs run so long, it's difficult to remain patient after more than a few minutes of rigorous, difficult listening. Thanks to Takemura's obvious laptop proficiency and the sincerity of Assembler's concept, it will remain an interesting listen. But ultimately, when the album's concept demands patience from the listener, yet the material makes patient listening impossible, the concept has failed.
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